See You June 2?

Spitballing the odds and causes of a special session after the the House midnight meltdown

Rep. Coleman:
Rep. Coleman: "It ain't dead until sine die."

A week ago, Texas House Republicans killed unemployment insurance compliance legislation by the use of fine-tuned timing. At midnight on June 31, Democrats may have used the same tactic to revive CHIP expansion.

The events were pretty simple. With the midnight deadline for House approval of committee conference reports imminent, House Bill 1959, the Sunset Safety Net Bill keeping vital state agencies like TxDoT open, came to the floor with 10 minutes to go. Then just as Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, killed the unemployment insurance compliance legislation in Senate Bill 1569 by taking his own amendment past the 12am deadline for passage, Rep. David Leibowitz, D-San Antonio, got on the mike. He started talking, preventing bill author Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, from getting to a vote. When it got a hair after midnight, Leibowitz successfully stopped the rules from being suspended, then got the session adjourned.

Which, in simple terms, means HB 1959 is dead in the water: Which means that Texas could be without enabling legislation for a department of transportation or an insurance watchdog: Which could force Gov. Rick Perry to call a special session.

Now it's possible to get HB 1959 back to the floor on Monday, but that takes suspending the rules, and that takes a 2/3rds vote, and that, it became clear, will take some horse trading. In the world of political quid pro quo, that could mean the CHIP expansion in the equally defunct SB 2080 could also come back. Democrats are pretty sanguine about the situation, with Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, sagely noting that, with the crunch already biting, the House will probably pass more legislation Monday than it did Sunday. As for CHIP, Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, explained, "It ain't dead until sine die."

Legislators will probably try to move heaven and earth to avoid having to come back: Frankly, after 140 days of erratic sleeping, poor health, missing family events, and running low on laundry, most just want to go home. Plus, the $600 a month they get paid doesn't go far (even with per diems) and a lot of people have jobs to get back to.

If HB 1959 doesn't come back and pass, tired observers on the House floor noted, that could be enough to trigger the dreaded special session. But would Perry want to go down that path?

Earlier in his career, Perry wasn't afraid of dragging members back, calling three in 2003, one in 20004, two in 2005, and one in 2006. But he's been leery of pulling the trigger since then as the political landscape shifts beneath him (as Harvey Kronberg of Quorum Report noted in conversation, it's not always wise to enter a special session and spend all that political collateral unless you know the outcome.)

The problem for Democrats is that (bar a court order) Perry's the only person that can call a special, no matter how worthy the cause.

Perry had already threatened calling members and senators back if they don't pass Texas Windstorm Insurance Agency reform (that said, it shows his current influence under the dome that, even after designating it an emergency item, he couldn't get it solved before the last Sunday of the session.) Speaker Joe Straus said he had talked with Perry "about the possibility [of a special session] and we also talked about the possibility of the goal of avoiding it." The reforms rolled in to HB 4409 passed the House on Sunday, so now that's up to the Senate.

When UI went down, bill sponsor Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, commented, "Everything that may have gone wrong here over the last five days or the last five months is not the fault of the 200,000 unemployed Texans, or the thousands of businesses that are going to be responsible for the $800 million tax increase that they will suffer because of our failure to draw down the stimulus money," said Strama. "If we come back in special session because of what's happened here in the last five days, I hope we can revisit this issue."

But Perry has already set himself against UI reform, so that's probably a non-starter.

So what about voter ID? The Republicans have been waving a poll that says 70% of Texans want it (without specifically saying what that bill should say, even though the only language they seemed to take seriously was the "hard photo" language that House Democratic Caucus Leader Jim Dunnam has referred to as "Mrs. Brown's bill.") But Dunnam has argued that Democrats would turn up to fight, and could change the debate to hit the Republicans over failing to support Dem proposals for better voter registration, better election judge training, and tougher penalties for voter impersonation.

The budget is a different matter. With terms of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act still in partial flux, House Republican Caucus Leader Larry Taylor has already said that could be enough to ensure that Perry has to get everyone back (whether he really wants to or not.)

If Perry did call a special session, Dunnam said, "Hopefully he would call us back to do something about homeowners insurance reform, or he'd call us back to do something about windstorm assurance, or call us back to do something about college tuition: Things that are really important to people, and not just things to get a partisan advantage."

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81st Legislature, Special Session, Larry Taylor, Jim Dunnam, Mark Strama, Joe Straus, Unemployment insurance

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